The Florida Everglades is a huge subtropical wetland of sawgrass marshes in a complex system of interdependent ecosystems.
These ecosystems include cypress swamps, the estuarine mangrove forests of the Ten Thousand Islands, tropical hardwood hammocks, pine rock land, and the salt water marine environment of Florida Bay in the Keys.
The western parts of the extremely urban southeast Florida counties of Martin, Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade are in the Everglades.
The rampant development in this megalopolis has created new problems for the Everglades and aggravated old ones.
Also, although Naples, Fort Myers, Labelle, Immokalee and Everglades City are in southwest Florida, the Everglades ecosystem touches their very back doors and is part of their history and future.
The Florida Everglades sprawls across 16 counties, all the way from Orlando in the north to Monroe County in the south.
DAY TRIP 1
Big Cypress National Preserve
Big Cypress Swamp Welcome Center,
3300 Tamiami Trail East, Ochopee, FL 34141. Tel: 239-695-4758
Oasis Visitor Center
52105 Tamiami Trail East, Ochopee, FL 34141. Tel: 239-695-1201
This 720,000-acre preserve was established in 1974. Unlike adjacent Everglades National Park, the Seminole and Miccosukee Indians were given permanent rights to occupy and use portions of the land. Some live here and provide guided tours.
Hunting is a major sport during seasons.
There are 2 visitor centers on Tamiami Trail where you learn about preserve history and watch an informational film. The centers have park service staffers who can tell you what kind of activities are available.
he preserve is home to mangroves, orchids, alligators, venomous snakes, birds, otters, bobcats, coyotes, black bears and panthers.
Hiking is a popular activity all year long because the trails are more walkable than the sawgrass prairies of the Everglades further east. You can hike on your own or take a ranger guided tour.
You can also arrange canoe or kayak trips.
There are 12 campgrounds in the preserve that are for motor vehicles. The preserve is an International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) Dark Sky Place.
Being far away from urban development of the east and west coasts, the preserve has a night sky where you can still see thousands of stars and enjoy the Milky Way.
DAY TRIP 2
Clyde Butcher’s Big Cypress Gallery
52388 Tamiami Trail, Ochopee, FL 34141. Tel: 239-695-2428
A large collection of Clyde Butcher’s photographs are in this gallery. The gallery is about one-half mile east of the Big Cypress National Preserve Oasis Visitor Center.
Clyde Butcher is a photographer who specializes in large format black and white landscapes, especially in the Everglades. He has been called by many “the Ansel Adams” of the Everglades.
Until recently, this gallery was also his home. He has other galleries in Venice and Sarasota.
A popular feature of this gallery is the Big Cypress Swamp Walk conducted by Clyde in person. It is a 2-hour eco-swamp tour where you get your feet wet and see orchids, ferns, bromeliad, birds, and many other swamp creatures.
Another feature is the Everglades Swamp Cottage and Bungalows. These lodgings are behind the gallery and have all the modern conveniences and tremendous views of the natural surroundings.
DAY TRIP 3
Everglades Rod and Gun Club
200 Riverside Dr, Everglades City, FL 34139. Tel: 239-695-2101
The main reason to visit the Everglades Rod and gun club is to step back into history. It’s a rambling old wooden building on the bank of the Barron River that dates to the 1890s.
It has hosted a lot of famous people, including Ernest Hemingway and Harry Truman. I visited this place several times just to see the beautiful paneled lobby, bar, restaurant, and sitting rooms.
The restaurant and bar operating hours seem to be ever changing, sometimes due to the season. The rooms in the main building are not for rent, but there are several neat and clean guest cottages.
One word of caution: when mosquitoes decide to visit the hotel grounds, you best have plenty of insect repellent.
DAY TRIP 4
Everglades National Park
Gulf Coast Visitor Center, 815 Oyster Bar Lane, Everglades City, FL 34139. Tel: 239-695-3311.
Shark Valley Visitor Center, 36000 SW 8th Street (US-41/Tamiami Trail), Miami, Florida 33194. Tel: 305-221-8776.
Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center, 40001 State Road 9336, Homestead, Florida 33034. Tel: 305-242-7700.
Flamingo Visitor Center, 1 Flamingo Lodge Highway, Homestead, Florida 33034. Tel: 239-695-2945.
There are 4 entrances to Everglades National Park at separate visitor centers.
The best time to visit is from December to March, when temperatures are cooler, and mosquitoes are least active.
The best entrance for you will be the one closest to where you are that gives you the experience you want. I prefer the Everglades City entrance. Each entrance provides access to hiking trails, campgrounds, and observation points.
The park’s 1,509,000 acres make it the largest tropical wilderness in the United States. It is a sensitive ecosystem of wetlands and forests in what has been called the “River of Grass”.
This shallow river flows south from Lake Okeechobee toward Florida Bay at the rate of about .25 miles per day.
36 threatened species are in this park including panther, manatee, 350 bird species, 40 mammal species, and 50 species of reptiles.
The entrance closest to Miami is the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center in Homestead. A 38-mile road starts here that meanders through rock land, cypress, freshwater and coastal prairie, and mangroves. The road ends at the Flamingo Visitor Center and marina, open only during the busiest time of the year.
The entrance at Gulf Coast Visitor Center in Everglades City is closest to Naples and the west coast. This entrance provides boat tours and exhibits. It is also the point where canoers can access the Wilderness Waterway, a 99-mile canoe trail that extends to the Flamingo Visitor Center.
The western coast of the park and the Ten Thousand Islands are accessible only by boat.
DAY TRIP 5
Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail
Numerous Access Points Around the Perimeter of Lake Okeechobee. Tel: 863-983-8101
You can enjoy walking, bicycling, horseback riding, and roller blading around all or part of Lake Okeechobee.
Designated as part of the Florida National Scenic Trail, the trail is about 110 miles long encircling the lake. About half of the trail is a two-track gravel road, and the other half is paved.
The trail is on top of the 35-foot high Herbert Hoover Dike. The height above the low and flat surrounding area gives you scenic views of the lake that cannot typically be seen.
The trail is open year-round and can be used for short hikes or all the way round. There are 14 camping areas available on or adjacent to the trail.
No fees or permits are required for trail use.
You can get on the trail from any of the numerous recreation areas located around the lake.
Be sure to check the Army Corps of Engineers website for current closures since the dike is continually under reconstruction.
DAY TRIP 6
Miccosukee Indian Village
US-41 (Tamiami Trail, Miami, FL 33194. Tel 305-480-1924
Most people have heard of the Seminoles, but what is a Miccosukee?
They are a separate tribe with some cultural differences. They broke off from the Seminoles in 1962.
In addition to a casino and gaming resort in Miami, the Miccosukee have a village further west on Tamiami Trail in the Everglades.
The Miccosukee Indian Village is about 30 miles west of Miami. Your visit will include guides who take you on a tour of the history, culture, and lifestyle of the tribe.
They will show you demonstrations of woodcarving, beadwork, basket weaving and doll making. You will also learn a lot about the alligator and how the tribe has coexisted with them all these years.
You can take an airboat ride into the Everglades and visit a traditional camp that has been owned by the same Miccosukee family for more than 100 years.
A museum has photos of generations of tribal members, colorful native clothing, native paintings, and other tribal artifacts.
The Miccosukee Restaurant serves the famous Miccosukee fry bread, pumpkin bread, gator, catfish, frog legs, and even regular American food.
DAY TRIP 7
Museum of the Everglades
105 Broadway Avenue West
Everglades City, Florida 34139. Tel: 239-695-0008
You will enter what used to be a laundry building from the 1920s that served the Everglades Rod and Gun Club. It stopped doing laundry many years ago and is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
The museum documents the history of Everglades City and the surrounding area. This area of Florida was settled in the late 1800s and early settlers survived by fishing, farming, and hunting.
Most folks here made their livings from the Everglades in one form or another.
An interesting and unusual current exhibit in the museum’s art gallery is entitled “Abandoned Vehicles of the Everglades”.
It is a collection of photographs by Matt Stock that show vehicles that were abandoned many years ago and have now become part of the ecosystem as the Florida jungle grows up into and through the rusty steel cars and trucks.
DAY TRIP 8
Shark Valley Tram Tours
36000 Southwest 8th Street (US-41, Tamiami Trail)
Miami, Florida 33194. Tel: 305-221-8455
Shark Valley is in Everglades National Park about 40 miles west of downtown Miami. The way I have enjoyed this place in the past is with a self-guided bicycle tour using my own bike.
The 15-mile long paved road is an easy ride because it’s flat. It’s unnerving sometimes if too many gators are napping by the side of the path.
The ride takes 2 or 3 hours or longer depending on how often you stop. You can also rent a bicycle from Shark Valley Tram Tours.
Another great way to see things is on the 2-hour Everglades Tram Tour through this section of Everglades National Park. It’s a guided tour conducted by an experienced naturalist.
The tour is in an open vehicle, so you get a great view of wildlife and habitat.
Halfway through the tour you will come to a 45-foot high observation platform that gives you a fantastic view of the Everglades. On a clear day you can see 20 miles in all directions.
Shark Valley is busiest from just after Christmas day through the end of April. Reservations are highly recommended during this period.
DAY TRIP 9
360 Mamie St, Chokoloskee, FL 34138. Tel: 239-695-2989
Smallwood Store is one of the most historic places in Southwest Florida. It is on the National Register of Historic Places. It is located on Chokoloskee Island, which is connected to Everglades City by a long causeway.
The store was opened by Ted Smallwood in 1906 as a general store and trading post serving the Seminole Indians and early white settlers in the area. The building perches on stilts over the edge of the water on Chokoloskee Bay at the south end of the island.
It has been opened and shut over the years, sometimes due to hurricane damage. The store is open now and has a lot of the store items that Ted Smallwood himself would recognize.
It still looks like what it was: an Old Florida trading post. It has no air conditioning, but when the door is open a nice breeze flows through the place.
It has now survived 6 hurricanes, and the most recent one, Irma in 2017, took its toll. There is a fund-raising campaign underway to repair and rebuild Smallwood’s.